Trump Versus Obama on Their Economic Policies

Is Trump or Obama Best for the Economy?

Trump and Obama
••• President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama walk out prior to Obama's departure during the 2017 presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Jack Gruber/Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump (Republican) is the 45th U.S. president (2017-2021). Like most Republican presidents, he promised to cut taxes, reduce the deficit, and boost defense spending. 

Barack Obama (Democrat) was the 44th president (2009-2017). Like most Democratic presidents, he promised to increase taxes on high-income families, improve health care coverage, and strengthen regulations.

Here's a comparison of their policies in seven critical economic areas: defense, recession recovery, health care, trade, regulations, the national debt and climate change.


Both presidents budgeted more for defense than any administration since WWII. Trump budgeted $574.5 billion for the Department of Defense for FY 2018. That's 10 percent more than the $526.1 billion spent on the DoD in FY 2017.

But the DoD budget is just one component of military spending. There is also emergency funding that's not subject to sequestration. Congress allocates that for overseas wars.

Military spending is also hidden in the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The Justice Department pays for the FBI. In addition, Homeland Security, the State Department and the Veterans Administration also support defense. When these are combined, FY 2018 military spending is $827.5 billion.

Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On May 1, 2011, Navy SEALs attacked the al-Qaida leader's compound in Pakistan. Later that year, Obama withdrew troops from the Iraq War. Three years later, renewed threats from the Islamic State group meant troops had to return. For more, see Will It Ever End? How the Sunni-Shiite Split Affects the U.S. Economy.

In 2014, Obama wound down the war in Afghanistan. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reduced annual military spending. But it did not reduce it very much. At almost $800 billion, military spending was the largest FY 2014 discretionary budget item. It was one of the leading causes of the budget deficit and national debt. For more, see War on Terror Costs.

Obama used a non-military tactic to reduce the threat of nuclear war with Iran. On July 14, 2015, Obama brokered a nuclear peace agreement with Iran. In return, the United Nations lifted the economic sanctions it imposed in 2010. For details, see Iran's Economy: Impact of Nuclear Deal and Sanctions.

Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for reducing the war in Iraq. Despite this peaceful reputation and actions, Obama spent more on defense than any other president preceding him. In FY 2010, his first budget, he spent $527.2 billion on the DoD and $851.6 billion on total military spending. In FY 2011, he reached a peak of $855.1 billion total military spending. That's more than President's Trump's FY 2018 budget. But both presidents are spending much more than any previous president.

Recession Recovery

Trump entered office without a recession to fight. But he won the election on the impression by voters that the economic growth should be better. He promised growth of more than 4 percent. His voters didn't realize that such fast growth is unsustainable and dangerous. It becomes a bubble that creates a recession. Here are examples of that boom and bust cycle.

Obama faced the worst recession since the Great Depression. He used expansionary fiscal policy to combat it. He signed the $787 billion Economic Stimulus Act. This act created jobs in education and infrastructure, ending the recession in the third quarter 2009

Obama bailed out the U.S. auto industry on March 30, 2009. The federal government took over General Motors and Chrysler, saving three million jobs.

Obama used Bush-era TARP funds to create HARP. It rescued homeowners who were upside-down in their mortgages. 

Health Care

Trump's approach to health care focused on weakening the Affordable Care Act. He stopped reimbursing insurers for their low-income customers. They raised premiums 20 percent. He made short-term insurance more available. It's cheaper than Obamacare, but doesn't have the same benefits. He also allowed states to enforce work requirements on Medicaid recipients.

Trump also signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It repealed the ACA mandate that everyone must have health insurance or pay a tax. That allows healthy people to cancel their plans, leaving insurance companies with costly sick people. As a result, premiums are bound to rise.

Trump's supporters were frustrated with rising health care costs. They blamed Obamacare. Many of them had lost their employer-based insurance. Then they found that individual policies on the health care exchanges were more expensive. 

Others thought it was unfair that they had to accept policies that covered maternity care as part of the 10 essential benefits. Policies were also more expensive because the ACA prohibited annual and lifetime limits. It mandated that insurers cover everyone, even those with pre-existing conditions.

The ACA legislation made changes to Medicare. One change was more coverage of prescription drug costs. It also began paying hospitals for quality of care, not for each test or procedure. Trump's health care plans did not try to reform these specific aspects of the ACA.

Congress wanted to repeal the ACA taxes. In 2013, the ACA levied taxes on those earning $200,000 or more. In 2014, anyone who didn't obtain health insurance also paid a tax.

The reason Obama pushed through the ACA in 2010 was to reduce health care costs. The cost of Medicare and Medicaid threatened to eat the budget alive. The No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy is health care costs, even for those with insurance. That's because many policies at the time had annual and lifetime limits that were easily exceeded by chronic illness. 

Most of the Act's benefits didn't go into effect until after 2014. Obamacare closed the Medicare “doughnut hole.” More important, it provides health insurance for everyone. That cuts health care costs by allowing more people to afford preventive health care. They can treat their illnesses before they require expensive emergency room care. This slowed the rise of health care costs. For more, see Cost of Obamacare. (Source: "Report of the Trustees," Health and Human Services, 2009.)


Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would have been the world's largest free trade agreements. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, the world's largest existing agreement. He said he would negotiate better bilateral agreements.

The Obama administration negotiated the TPP. It also successfully concluded bilateral agreements in South Korea (2012), Colombia (2011), Panama (2011) and Peru (2009). The administration negotiated, but didn't finish, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Trump has not said whether he would continue negotiations on the TTIP.

Trump advocates trade protectionism. In 2018, he launched a global trade war. In January 2018, he imposed tariffs and quotas on imported Chinese solar panels and washing machines. In March 2018, he announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. On July 6, Trump's tariffs went into effect for $34 billion of Chinese imports. On August 2, 2018, the administration announced a 25 percent tariff on $16 billion worth of Chinese goods.

Trump promised to label China as a currency manipulator. Trump claims that China artificially undervalues its currency, the yuan, by 15-40 percent. If it didn't reduce its trade surplus with the United States, he would impose duties on its exports. As president, he has reversed some of those claims. For more, see Dollar to Yuan Conversion and History. (Source: “Trump Says He Will Not Label China Currency Manipulator, Reversing Campaign Promise,” The Washington Post, April 12, 2017.)


Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act in 2010. It regulated non-bank financial companies, like hedge funds, and complicated derivatives, like credit default swaps. It made another financial crisis less likely. Dodd-Frank also regulated credit, debit and prepaid cards. It ended payday loans with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Trump signed an executive order asking the Treasury Secretary to review Dodd-Frank. That report, released June 13, 2017, recommended that Dodd-Frank regulations be waived for small banks. It suggested giving the president authority to fire the CFPB direction for any cause, not just negligence. And it said that Congress, not the Federal Reserve, should be in charge of the CFPB budget. 

Deficit and Debt

Both presidents ran up record-setting budget deficits. On May 23, 2017, Trump submitted his FY 2018 budget to Congress. The total planned spending is $4.094 trillion between October 1, 2017 and September 30, 2018. Trump’s budget estimates the government will receive $3.654 trillion in revenue. That would leave a $440 billion deficit. 

That lives up to Trump's promise to reduce the deficit. The FY 2017 budget enacted by Congress estimated a $577 billion deficit. That can't all be blamed on Obama, even though it was his last budget. Congress ignored Obama's budget and Trump's budget amendment. It created a budget that added $38.8 billion to Obama's original budget proposal. Congress's enacted budget was also $4 billion more than Trump's budget amendment.

Trump promised to cut waste. Instead, he spent $4.094 trillion, more than the $4.037 trillion budgeted for FY 2017. He plans to reduce the deficit by bringing in more revenue. The administration estimates it will receive $3.654 trillion, more than the $3.460 trillion estimated for FY 2017. For more, see 5 Myths About Cutting Government Spending.

Obama contributed to the largest deficit in U.S. history. President Bush's last budget, for FY 2009, started out with a $407 billion deficit. TARP added another $151 billion to the deficit. Obama's stimulus plan added $253 billion. The recession reduced revenue by almost $600 billion. As a result, the FY 2009 budget deficit was $1.4 trillion. 

Obama's FY 2010 budget deficit was $1.294 trillion. The FY 2011 budget deficit topped that, at $1.3 trillion. Then, as the economy improved, each year's deficit was smaller. For more, see Deficit by President

Because of all this, the U.S. debt rose the most during Obama’s terms. That's because each year's budget deficit adds to the debt. Obama added a total of $7.9 trillion by the end of FY 2016. There are more details in Debt by President and How Much Did Obama Add to the Debt?

Trump promised to reduce the national debt, but instead will add $5.8 trillion over the next 10 years. His plan to reduce the debt relies on increasing economic growth to 6 percent. Like most Republicans, he proposes tax cuts to spur that level of growth. But they would add $4.6 trillion to the debt. His plan to repeal Obamacare would add the remaining $1.2 trillion. That's because the ACA imposed taxes to pay for itself. (Source: “Promises and Price Tags: An Update,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, September 22, 2017.)

Climate Change

On December 12, 2015, Obama led global efforts to finalize the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon trading. Members decided to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to assist emerging markets. Many developing countries bear the brunt of damage from climate change, facing typhoons, rising sea levels and droughts.

At least 55 of the 196 participating countries must now ratify the agreement before it can go into effect. At the 2016 G20 meeting, China and the United States agreed to ratify the agreement. These two countries emit the most greenhouse gases. (Source: "Climate Agreement Best Chance We Have to Save the Planet," CNN, December 14, 2015.) 

Obama announced carbon reduction regulations in 2014. He enacted the Clean Power Plan in 2015. It's a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. It does this by setting carbon reduction goals for the nation's power plants. To comply, power plants will create 30 percent more renewable energy by 2030. It encourages carbon emissions trading by allowing states that emit less than the caps to trade their surplus to states that emit more than the cap. (Sources: "Obama Just Created a Carbon Cap and Trade Program," Climate Central, August 4, 2015.

On June 1, 2017, Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. He promised to eliminate the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the United States rule. He signed an order allowing construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. They'd ship high-grade Canadian crude oil to refineries in the Gulf region.

Trump pledged to revive the coal industry while remaining committed to clean coal technology. He signed an order that suspended, rescinded or flagged for review several Obama-era measures that addressed climate change. He rescinded orders to address the link between climate change and defense. He initiated a review of Obama's Clean Power Plan because of its regulations on the coal industry. His administration is expected to allow states to set their own standards on coal emissions. (Source: "Trump Executive Order Seeks to Reverse Obama's Clean Energy Regulations," PBS NewsHour, March 27, 2017.)

Other Presidents' Economic Policies